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  • Ken Ilgunas

Rule of Thumb #10: When there’s nowhere to sleep, start turning knobs

Day 22: June 5, 2007. La Grande, Oregon to Park City, Utah (538 miles)

Leon looked like Larry David with a full-body tan. He was driving from Oregon to Salt Lake City where he was going to guide a rafting trip down the Jordan River.

I nodded off in the passenger seat of his sedan, tired from only three hours of sleep the previous night and unconcerned about dozing through the uninspiring aridity of Idaho and Utah.

Leon was a devout liberal and much of our conversation was spent grieving over the Bush administration and the loss of our country’s wild lands. When we stopped in Boise, I was surprised to see—in such a staunchly red-state—a food co-op replete with organic foods and lefty magazines.

Leon had some catchy observations that he’d gleaned over the course of his travels like: “The larger the Winnebago, the smaller the dog in it” and “The bigger the American flag, the more harm the business does to America.”

I thought I’d try my hand at “digital hitchhiking” so I contacted Leon through a Yahoo rideshare group. The ride worked out well, except that I was now expected to help out with gas money.

He picked me up in La Grande that morning, where I’d just spent a week and a half with Natalia.

Leon dropped me off on the side of the I-80 just outside of Salt Lake City amidst speeding cars and winds that threatened to push me and my sign to “Cheyenne” over the concrete guard rail and down a steep scree slope.

I imagined that I’d have little trouble catching rides in Utah—a state where I figured upstanding Mormon men with parted blond hair wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to spread the good word and help a stranger travel across their state.

Vern was no Mormon. He drove a gray Grand Marquee that looked like one of those beat-up cars that are thoughtlessly crunched under giant wheels at Monster Truck Rallys.

He was 28. It looked like he hadn’t grown up in the land of churches and pasture, but in one of fists and steel-toed kicks to the ribcage. His head was shaved, except for a yarmulke of stubble on top. “Eat Me” was tattoed on the backside of his hand. Across his knuckles and the rear of his neck were scars and fresh scabs. He just “got out” and was coming back from his ex-girlfriend’s in Salt Lake who allegedly “fucked up his car.” In passing, he mentioned something about having a drink.

“Watch out!” I yelled when he was going to ram the tail of the car ahead of us. Vern swerved into the entrance lane on our right and put the pedal to the floor. The Marquee zipped past the vehicle and flung itself back onto the thruway while I frantically searched for a seat belt buckle that had fallen in between the cracks, lost forever like a frozen corpse in a mountain crevasse.

He said he couldn’t wait to see his ex-girlfriend again so he could beat the shit out her. I wanted to learn more about his troubles, though I chose not to reopen freshly sealed wounds. His driving was bad enough.

We hadn’t been driving more than ten minutes, but smoke began seeping out from the cracks of the hood and the dials on his dash twitched nervously. He pulled over and poured in three bottles of oil. Each time he added coolant, it volcanoed into his face. When we got back in, we learned that the battery had died.

Vern was not the sort of guy I wanted to be stranded with in the middle of Utah. I wanted nothing more than to start walking east and go off on my own. But I decided that since he was kind enough to pull over for me, I ought to stay with him until he got things figured out. Neither of us had cell phones, so Vern etched “Help” on one of my squares of cardboard, which all passing cars would ignore.

His situation would have been enough to frustrate anybody: Poor, jobless, just out of jail, ex-girlfriend fucked up your car, stranded on the side of the road, and now no one’s pulling over to help.

I would have lost it by the third time the coolant rocketed into my face, yet Vern seemed oddly serene. Perhaps he was… Though I figured he was far from a state of peace.

I decided that he used detachment to disassociate himself with the chronic misery of everyday life, like one of those depressed and languid zoo animals who suddenly and unknowingly mauls the trainer because there was no more room to repress the unexpressed.

Soon, Vern would explode too. And I didn’t want to be around for it.

“I feel like I’m 85,” he said. He looked worn-out. He told me about his tragedy-stricken life. I could tell there was a good guy under his exterior, but something—an abusive father, an addiction, or just bad luck—had warped him into something ugly.

Eventually a cop pulled over for us. Vern used the cop’s phone to call his sister in Evanston, Wyoming who begrudgingly decided to pick him up. The cop drove me in the back of his car to Park

City, Utah, just a few miles up the road.

It was dark, so I made my way over to a gas station where I ate a mini Pizza Hut Pizza. The winds felt like hurricane gales, almost tipping me and my large pack over in mid-step. From the window, it looked as if the wind was going to strip the shirt off a guy struggling to fill up his gas tank.

I knew my tent couldn’t withstand such winds, and because I was in a residential area, there weren’t many places to set up camp. I, to no avail, tried to charm a couple latina cashiers into offering me a place to stay. No place was offered, but they did mention a Mormon church in town that might be unlocked.

I was reluctant to enter. Even though I found an unlocked door, I felt like I was trespassing. The long, partially-lit hallways were decorated with well-rendered paintings of Jesus and Co. doing gallant things. When I determined that I was alone, I bedded down on a couch, using my towel as a pillow and sweatshirt as a blanket.

I was exhausted yet wide-awake: the same “wired and tired” feeling common to mountain climbers. Each time I dozed, I woke soon after, worried about some church elder hanging over me in a purple frock with an ominous and disapproving gaze.

To make things worse, I had an inexplicably random and raging erection—the type that makes a man feel like he’s going to pass out from the pain. I squirmed throughout the night, worrying that the sides of my penis would split open like an unpierced hotdog in a microwave. Was this the wrath of God?—Was He inflicting upon me some cruel Biblical punishment for trespassing on sacred grounds?

Between the pain, the fear, and the wind that battered against the sides of the church, I only netted a couple hours of sleep.

I thought of Natalia. And Leon and Vern. Lives connected intimately one moment and severed the next.

I was happy, though. I was alone but alive, scared but spirited, abroad but at home.

I was back to my wandering ways on the open road.

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